18th century, Humanities

Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of Woman

By Lloyd Lewis

In March 2004, in a modest ceremony followed by a buffet, a previously unnamed crossroads in Paris was named ‘Place Olympe de Gouges’. Throughout France, a small but growing number of roads bear the same name; all were inaugurated within the last thirty years, Gouges died in 1793. The campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of Olympe de Gouges, an extraordinary author and activist of the French Revolution, has been long and difficult.

Born in Montauban in 1748, Olympe de Gouges made her mark on Parisian society as a socialite before turning her attention to literature. During the Revolution she became France’s most audacious and forthright proponent of women’s rights, a career cut short by the guillotine in November 1793. In the early days of revolutionary enthusiasm, many women took an active interest in politics, believing that the spirit of reform offered them new freedoms. These hopes gradually evaporated, as the emerging republican leaders excluded women from public life. Social attitudes had not changed significantly either: questioning a woman’s morality was a foolproof method of discrediting her. Misogynist critics made use of an easy pun: women in public life were femmes publiques, a familiar euphemism for prostitutes.

Gouges was on the receiving end of plenty of this criticism. Fellow author Restif de la Bretonne added her to his index of Parisian prostitutes, and playwright Fleury described her as ‘one of those women who lose the pleasant qualities of their sex, with no hope of gaining the strengths of ours.’ In the light of such attacks, it is not surprising that much of the work aimed at defending Gouges’ legacy has been based on her life. The unfortunate result of this is that much of her work is neglected: to properly understand Olympe de Gouges’ contribution to history, a re-evaluation of her works is essential.

The most striking feature of Gouges’ literary production is its variety: she wrote short stories, pamphlets, posters and plays, almost all motivated by specific issues. The range of these issues is impressive, but Gouges’ approach is always characterised by a keen sense of injustice, and a strong opposition to all forms of discrimination. She was an early supporter of the abolitionist movement, vigorously denouncing slavery in her play L’Esclavage des Negres. Her favourite topics were undoubtedly the difficulties which confronted women in French society, such as the prejudice against unwed mothers and illegitimate children. She was a staunch supporter of divorce, suggesting a form of civil contract to replace the male-biased tradition of marriage. One of her most forward-thinking proposals was for a system of nationally-funded maternity hospitals to reduce the number of women and babies dying in childbirth. The Convent, her critique of enforced religious vows for young girls, was performed at least 41 times in the period 1790-92, making it a spectacular success.

But her most famous and most celebrated work is her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. This was a direct response to the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and by paralleling this text closely she made plain the illogical, illiberal nature of legal distinctions between the sexes. The latter begins:

‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.’

Gouges spots the obvious omission and remedies it in her response:

‘Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.’

She continues: ‘woman’s freedom to exercise her natural rights is limited only by the perpetual, tyrannical opposition of men.’ The Declaration demonstrates her instinctive ability to manipulate the conventions with which she was faced. Much of republican political writing is infused with an abstract invocation of ‘Nature’ and ‘natural roles’ inspired largely by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Gouges plays heavily on this tradition, turning it to her advantage by reminding us that ‘Nature’ does not ordain a discrepancy between the freedoms of men and women. Perhaps the most widely remembered article of her Declaration is No.10: ‘a woman has the right to mount the scaffold [i.e. to be executed]; she must equally have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum.’ The ‘right’ to mount the scaffold was something of which Olympe de Gouges was acutely aware, but which she never seemed to fear.

In some respects, Gouges’ life and works are inextricably bound together. A firm believer in equality, rights and freedom of speech, she intended to hold the leaders of the revolution to account. With characteristic verve she set about haranguing Maximilien Robespierre: given his major role in enacting ‘The Terror’, this was far from sensible. But Gouges’ faith in the humanity of the people and the ideals of the Revolution was unshakeable; she believed that she was doing a public service by opposing the increasingly authoritarian actions of Robespierre and his followers.

‘Robespierre… you call yourself the originator of the Revolution; you were not, are not, and never will be anything other than its bane and disgrace.’

Comments like this did little to endear Gouges to the authorities, and she met her end on the Place de la Revolution in November 1793. She was a fearless campaigner for the rights of women in a republican system which excluded them entirely. In this climate publicity and propriety were not reconcilable goals for a woman: shortly after the execution of Olympe de Gouges the National Assembly published an edict banning women from assembling in groups larger than five. It would be many years before women gained the rights and dignities of which Gouges dreamt, and her name would long remain forgotten or scorned.

De Gouges. O, Declaration of the Rights of Woman
Mousset. S, Olympe de Gouges et les droits de la femme (Paris, 2003)
Wallach Scott. J, Only Paradoxes to Offer (London, 1996)
Blanc. O, Olympe de Gouges (Paris, 2003)

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